A new study in the journal Nature provides fresh insight into deep-earth processes driving apart huge sections of the earth’s crust. The process, called rifting, mostly takes place on seabeds, but can be seen in a few places on land—nowhere more visibly than in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. (See the slideshow below.) Here, earthquakes and volcanoes have rent the surface over some 30 million years, forming part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. What causes this, and does it resemble the processes on the seafloor, as many geologists think?
The study suggests that conventional ideas may be wrong. Past calculations done by scientists predict that the solid rock under the Afar should be stretching and thinning substantially as the continent tears apart; thus molten rock should not have far to travel to the surface. Led by David Ferguson, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of lava chunks they collected from the Afar. They showed that magmas actually came from quite deep–greater than 80 kilometers, or 45 miles, within the earth’s mantle–and formed under extraordinarily high temperatures, above 1,450 degrees C, or 2,600 F.
This implies that magmas are generated by a long-lasting plume of mantle heat. It also indicates that magma must make its way up through a surprisingly thick lid of solid rock, called the lithosphere. This idea has been supported by some seismic images of the Afar subsurface.
Rifting here is fairly slow—one or two centimeters a year, or 0.4 to 0.8 inches, and this may partly explain why so much solid rock persists. As the lithosphere is pulled apart, it does stretch, crack and thin. However, because the process in this region takes so long, the base of the lithosphere has time to cool down by losing heat to the colder rock above. This keeps the relatively cold, brittle lithosphere thicker than would be expected, and counteracts stretching. Sometimes, though, magma suddenly spurts long distances to the surface, and the earth visibly cracks and pulls apart during spectacular rifting events. That includes a series of events that started in 2005, and was closely observed by scientists.
Parts of the rift have already sunk below sea level. In the distant future–maybe 10 million years from now–the process will advance so far that the Red Sea will break through and flood the region. A new sea will open up, whether or not there is anyone around to name it.
In East Africa, earth’s crust is stretching and cracking, in a process called rifting. Here in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, hundreds of faults and fissures have formed over time. (David Ferguson)
An important force driving the rifting is magma created beneath earth’s rocky outer shell, which has forced its way upward to push apart the crust. This eruption happened in the Afar in June 2009. (David Ferguson)
This crevice opened in a matter of hours, during a sequence of very large earthquakes in September 2005. It formed in response to magma being injected into the shallow crust, and is still emitting volcanic gases. This injection of magma was the largest event of its kind to be observed by scientists. (Lorraine Field)
Fresh lava erupted onto the desert floor preserves fragile surface textures, formed as the viscous molten rock cooled and hardened. Over time, these sharp features will erode away. (David Pyle)
A remote field site within the rift. Afar is one of the hottest and most sparsely populated regions on the planet. (David Pyle)
In a region that is vast, largely roadless and dominated by armed tribes, scientists depend on helicopters to get around, and on local people to act as guides and security guards. The climate necessitates large amounts of portable drinking water. (David Ferguson)
Lavas forming the rift surface cracked apart during an earthquake in 2005 to form this fault. The horizontal boundary between the light and dark area marks the pre-2005 ground surface, and shows that the area in the foreground dropped several meters during the quake. The geology of Afar provides many clues to the tectonic and magmatic process operating beneath our feet. (David Pyle)
All of us on the science team have had our turn being indoctrinated in the "perils" of XBT deployment. In this video, Luke demonstrates the proper technique for launching an XBT.
Prior to boarding the Langseth, my expectations of the food on board were clouded with visions of elementary school cafeteria slop doled out in aluminum trays and eaten with sporks and a side of plastic bag infused with milk. Little did I know that the folks on board take their food quite seriously. The three meals prepared each day are easily the most anticipated events of a crews’ day.
The galley (a.k.a. the kitchen in land dweller speak) is manned by a cook and steward who are responsible for sustaining the morale for the 53 people on board. The mess is regularly stocked with snacks like crackers, raisins, peanuts, dried prunes (yuck!), popcorn, cold cereal, microwave pasta, deli meats and cheeses, an assortment of milks and juices, coffee, tea, ice cream, and “fresh” fruits and vegetables (which will slowly be replaced with canned fruits and vegetables as the days go by). Cookies and pastries are also available at select times during the day if one is lucky enough to get there before they’ve all been consumed.
Lunch at the mess with Luke, Sarah, and Tyler.
We made it! According to the 30 minute log, which is one of the duties that we are given while on watch, we sustained up to 40 knot (74 km/hr, 46 mph) winds and ~7m (23 ft) seas for a few hours last night. That said, and aside from a relative lack of sleep, most of us seem to be no worse for wear. We also managed to travel north of our next sail line by almost an entire degree of latitude, which translates to ~111km (69 miles). We have now turned around, and are heading back to the survey area while working on streamer one. We will then re-deploy the air guns, and re-engage the survey in a couple of hours.
Same view taken this morning.
Spanish, English, and American motion sickness remedies.
My laptop's ready!
Poseidon's Zodiak on the way over to exchange supplies.
A few years ago, it was realised that seismic provides a method of directly observing the mixing processes, as the different water layers have sufficiently different seismic velocity and salinity for reflections to be generated at their boundaries: we have already seen reflections in the water column of our data, probably from boundaries between North Atlantic water and warmer, more saline Mediterranean water. However there have been relatively few studies of these processes using traditional oceanographic and seismic techniques, a deficiency being rectified by the deployment of XBTs at regular intervals during our cruise.
A successful exchange on medium-high seas!!
In addition to deploying ocean bottom seismometers to record our seismic shots, the German research vessel F.S. Poseidon has been carrying out oceanographic measurements, mainly using CTD casts (conductivity-temperature-depth), which provide more information than XBTs. As a result they had several XBTs left over. These they transferred to us this morning: Poseidon came within about 1 km of the Langseth and sent the XBTs over in a small boat. A real bumpy ride!
Goodbye, until we meet in Vigo!Tim Reston
University of Birmingham
Today the Poseidon is recovering eight OBH to download the data they recorded and redeploy them elsewhere within the 3-D box. It will be exciting to see the first OBH data! We won't see the rest of the data until the remaining OBS and OBH are recovered in August and September.
Despite being in the same area, here on the Langseth the science party hasn't seen the Poseidon since our first day passing them on the way out to sea from Vigo. However, this may be because we are all busy below deck in the main lab (with no windows) processing data!
Map in the main lab showing planned profiles. The ones we've already completed are in green
*Follow our progress on the "Survey Area" page as we update the sail lines every ~4 days.
Marine reflection seismology involves actively generating soundwaves (rather than waiting for earthquakes as in many other types of seismology). The ideal seismic source is as close to a “spike” as possible. Sound waves from the source travel into the Earth, where they reflect off sedimentary layers as well as hard-rock surfaces. The returning reflections are recorded by over a thousand hydrophones (underwater microphones that gauge pressure changes created by the reflected seismic waves) in the streamers that we have been deploying for the last four days.
The source consists of a series of air guns of varying sizes, which are hung at a depth of 9m (~30 feet) below large inflatable tubes. The tubes are 60m (~200 feet) long and each has 9 active air guns (10 with one to spare). In our case there are two sets of air guns being towed 150m (~500 feet) behind the ship, that alternately fire. To create a strong source that is as spike-like as possible, the guns are carefully arranged and fire almost simultaneously. The air is released from the chamber of the air gun, creating a 3300 cubic inch bubble pulse, which collapses to create the sound waves.
Orientation of the streamer and gun arrays being towed by R/V Langseth.
The red circles indicate the location of the gun arrays.
I returned to New York on Monday, but Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack remain working in Barrow, Alaska for another week. They’ll continue to collect data and samples in a race against deteriorating Arctic sea ice conditions as the onset of summer causes the ice to thin and break up. Even in the two weeks I stayed in Barrow the ice changed dramatically, shifting from a snow-covered ice pack to a nearly snow-free ice pack, covered in cracks and increasingly large melt ponds. An animation from the May 23 Barrow sea ice radar reveals just how quickly shorefast sea ice can change. Soon the ice will be deemed unsafe for travel by snow machine and spring fieldwork conducted on the ice will end.
Our team’s research in Barrow is just one part in the long process of studying and answering questions about algae growing in and under Arctic sea ice and its role in the marine ecosystem. And, it’s a process that does not necessarily have a defined end — investigating the natural world always leads to more questions. From fieldwork, where observations are made and data gathered, new questions arise, new hypotheses are put forward and new ways of collecting data are developed. This work leads to further experiments where new data and samples are collected, observations are made, analyses performed and results interpreted. Some of the findings will challenge existing hypotheses, leading to their modification, which starts the research process over again.
Fieldwork gives scientists the opportunity to observe systems in a holistic way, leading to new insight and further research questions; each piece of data causes a rethinking of ideas and expectations for future results. “Fieldwork is inspiring and it’s critical to the creative process for environmental science because you often see things that you don’t necessarily see in your data,” said Andy. “There are subtleties and patterns that you can pick on if you pay attention to observe the natural world. You can’t do that in the lab or by looking at numbers.”
Some people may be disappointed to learn that we don’t have many immediate answers about sea ice algae and the Arctic ecosystem based on our month of Barrow fieldwork. But, scientists don’t set out to study things that are already understood or to answer questions that already have answers, and it takes time to unravel Earth’s mysteries. On this trip, project scientists discovered and collected lots of algae, observed novel behavior by marine organisms in the water column and on the seafloor, and gathered lots of data. The next steps in this project are to analyze the samples and data collected in Barrow, interpret these, write up findings and report these in journals and at scientific meetings. And, in 2014, Andy and Craig will return to Barrow to continue their study of sea ice algae, armed with new understanding of the algae, as well as new research questions to explore.
The goal of our project is to understand how ice algae functions and its role in the marine ecosystem, but we’ve received many questions about how ice algae, the residents of Barrow and the rest of life in the Arctic will be affected by a climate that is undoubtedly and irrevocably changing. The answer is that we don’t know, but our research may contribute to future understanding of these issues. Though the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on the planet, with temperature increasing and ice volume decreasing, it is still one of the least explored places on Earth. In order to know how climate change will impact this region, the basic oceanographic and ecological processes must first be understood.
As our project progresses, we’ll continue to provide updates and look forward to sharing a video of our time in Barrow that’s being produced by our friends at Climate Science TV. For more information on this research project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com. Our colleagues at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory also travel the world exploring our planet; to keep up with more interesting Earth science research and reports from the field, follow Lamont-Doherty on Twitter and Facebook.
And thanks to everyone who followed our expedition, we enjoyed sharing it with you!
It’s near midnight and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory researchers Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, and Arizona State’s Kyle Kinzler are gathered around a table in their lab at the Barrow Arctic Research Consortium discussing the best way to catch an isopod. When scientists do fieldwork, they enter into it with specific questions and science goals in mind, but one of the joys of exploring the world through scientific research is solving challenges and devising new ways to collect data.
Meet Brinson. He’s a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) along on our Arctic expedition and named in honor of a foundation that provided Andy funding to build him. Brinson, originally designed and built by engineer Bob Martin, and modified by Andy, is the result of an idea that evolved over several years of Arctic fieldwork.
“We were deploying just this ice fishing camera, but were frustrated by the fact that there was always something just beyond our range that we wanted to see,” said Andy. “So we wanted mobility and once we got that we were frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know how big things were, and that’s when we decided we needed the laser pointers to provide scale. So Brinson has been a multi-step evolution into a simple, but well-equipped ROV.”
Brinson now consists of a GoPro camera and a standard ice fishing camera attached to a frame made of PVC pipe that can be lowered into a hole in the ice. On the ice surface, the ice fishing camera’s live video feed shows what Brinson sees as he travels through the water. Brinson is equipped with small bilge pumps that act as motors, which enable him to be maneuvered forward, up, down and side to side via his tethered remote control. When Brinson is below the ice, Craig monitors the video feed and describes to Andy what he sees on the screen. When something of interest appears, Craig tells Andy which way to maneuver Brinson, so they can continue to get footage of the organism.
Brinson recently saw small crustaceans called isopods roaming around the ocean floor. Andy and Craig were excited about this find and very curious to learn more about what isopods might eat and their role may be in Arctic the marine food web. Once Brinson, and Andy and Craig, saw the isopods, it was decided that our team should catch some, but we had no trap or means of doing so.
Scientists need to bring absolutely everything they need, and think they might need, with them on research expeditions, especially those to remote areas like Alaska’s North Slope. So, when, for example, you decide you must build an isopod trap late at night in Barrow, you’re pretty much limited to what you have on hand: a plastic buckets, plastic window screening, electrical tape, rocks, string.
With these materials, a little ingenuity and their limited knowledge of isopod behavior, Craig and Kyle constructed isopod traps. The guys hypothesized that isopods might like chicken, so baited their traps with chicken bones saved from our dinner. The traps were attached to eight meters of string and dropped to the sea floor. Kyle’s trap sat overnight and caught two isopods; Craig’s trap sat on the ocean bottom for several days and contained at least 20 isopods when it was pulled up.
The beauty of the isopod traps is that they worked and project scientists will get valuable data about the Arctic marine food web as a result. “From the underwater videos shot by Brinson, it looks like the activity of the isopods increases after the ice algae exports,” Andy explained. “We think there’s a plausible connection there: the ice algae could be a food source for isopods. We never would have posed that as a hypothesis unless we had the opportunity to observe them and make these connections.”
Fieldwork is, in part, a pattern of observing and questioning, and responding to these with new theories, methods and experiments. It’s also part of a larger creative process that involves improvisation and unconventional thinking. Said Andy, “In the field, we make a lot of stuff out of duct tape and epoxy.”
One of the goals of Andy Juhl’s and Craig Aumack’s Arctic research is to determine the role of ice algae as a source of nutrition for food webs existing in the water column and at the bottom of the Arctic ocean. During their fieldwork these Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are deploying a plankton net, a common tool used by ocean scientists to catch tiny marine plants and animals in the water column, to collect live plankton for identification and examination in the lab. They’re hoping to determine the different kinds of organisms active in this part of the Arctic Ocean and their food web feeding connections, or who’s eating whom by testing the organisms to see if they contain algae in their guts and muscle tissues.
This information is important because it will provide a baseline understanding of the connection between the algal community in the sea ice and the underlying ecosystem, and how it functions. Once this is understood, scientists may be able to better understand and predict changes that could occur in the marine food web as Arctic snow and ice cover changes.
A few days ago we caught the comb jellies in this video near shore at a depth of about four meters. Though comb jellies have the same type of gelatinous body as a jellyfish, they belong to a completely different phylum called ctenophores. Known for being vicious carnivorous predators, ctenophores use rows of comb-like cilia to propel themselves through the top of the water column and prey on smaller organisms, such as zooplankton. Ctenophores are found throughout the world’s oceans, including Arctic waters — quite a few of appeared in the holes we’ve bored into the ice this week.
These two comb jellies were filmed under a microscope in our lab. Each one is just a few millimeters long, though they can grow to be about 10 cm, sometimes larger. You can also see small copepods, a type of zooplankton and favorite food of ctenophores, zipping around the screen. Seeing a lot of ctenophores in the upper water column is a good indicator that they are feeding extensively on copepod larvae, who in turn are feeding on ice algae. This is an example of a few of the connections that make up the foundation of the food web in this fragile, yet biologically productive ecosystem.
On Wednesday Andy and Craig answered responded to questions about their research during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. While the event is over, the session remains on Reddit and we encourage you to check it out to learn about our research and life in Barrow, Alaska.
Our team spent most of Friday on the Arctic sea ice, drilling and sampling ice cores at our main field site. For each core collected, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack take a number of different physical, chemical and biological measurements that characterize the ice and the organisms living inside it. Some of these measurements are recorded right away in the field, others will be taken later using pieces of the cores that we bring back to the lab.
Two of the physical measurements Andy and Craig record are the temperature and salinity of the ice. “Temperature is a critical parameter that controls the rate of almost all biological processes in the ice — almost everything happens slower when it’s colder, and parts of the ice can be colder than others. And if you know the temperature and the bulk salinity of the ice you can calculate how much brine volume there is within a given layer in the ice,” Andy explained.
Brine volume is an important measurement because algae live in brine channels in the ice. As ice gets colder, there’s less brine volume within it, meaning there’s less room for algae to grow. Andy and Craig also measure the concentrations of plant nutrients in the ice cores, including nitrate, ammonia, phosphate and silicate – some of the same elements that plants growing on land need. And, as with terrestrial plants, nutrient availability in sea ice is a factor that controls the growth of algae inside the ice.
Other measurements, such as particulate organic carbon (POC) and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), Andy and Craig take in the lab will reveal the amount of carbon, or organic material in the ice. In addition to algae, carbon found in the ice comes in the form of non-living materials, such as bits of organic detritus from the tundra that become trapped in the ice. Finally, samples are collected for microscope work so that project scientists can identify the different types of organisms found throughout the ice.
All of this information varies in any single ice core from the top to the bottom, and based on where it is drilled. By taking consistent measurements from each ice core in different locations, project scientists can develop an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of the Arctic algal ice ecosystem – and how it may be changing.
Our group spent Saturday and Sunday in the lab processing samples from last week and preparing equipment, including mounting a camera system on our small remotely operated vehicle (ROV). We’re heading back onto the ice early Monday morning with the ROV and are looking forward to working in temperatures that may reach 35F.
On Thursday we lowered a camera into an ice borehole to get a look at the underside of the ice. In the following video, you can clearly see the algae living in the bottom of the ice due to their pigments, which they use to harvest light.
These organisms are not frozen into the ice; they’re living creatures that grow and thrive in tiny pockets of brine inside the ice. You might notice in the video that the underside of the ice is not flat, this is probably a reflection of variability in physical conditions in and above the ice, such as snow cover thickness.
While watching this video, Andy Juhl and I discussed how cool it is that there are vibrant communities growing in extreme environments. “One of the lessons that research in polar regions has taught us is that we need to broaden our definition of where life exists and thrives. In the Arctic, we have life growing inside ice, at below freezing temperatures. This means that we know to look in more unusual places for science of life and that’s one of the interesting things we learn by doing this kind of work,” Andy said. “Ice is not necessarily an inhospitable habitat, and on other planets where we see ice, that’s a place where we should probably look for signs of life.”
The second film shows a bit of life on the seafloor. This video was shot near shore where the water depth is about 8 meters, so it’s fairly shallow; water temperature here is -2C. The bottom consists of soft mud and it looks like there are deposits of algae that probably came from the ice on the surface of the bottom (those are the darker areas). There’s a variety of bottom dwelling organisms that live in the mud, such as the isopod that wanders across the mud in this clip. We don’t yet know how large the isopods are or what they eat; scientists on our team are trying to figure out a way to measure an isopod in situ or capture one to examine in the lab.
As our work in Barrow progresses, we’ll continue to post more videos so that you can get a sense of the life that makes up this fascinating ecosystem.
Fieldwork is exciting and inspiring, leading scientists to new ideas, places and observations about how the world works. Spring on Alaska’s North Slope provides an especially productive environment for fieldwork. When the sun never sets, it’s easy to linger in the field and the lab long into the well-lit night.
Our team spent about six hours on the Arctic sea ice Thursday, enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the low teens, while making observations, maintaining sampling sites and taking measurements. Most of our time was spent at two different field sites Andy and Craig established near Point Barrow, a narrow spit of land that’s the northernmost point in the United States. Traveling to these sites involves loading up two sleds with all of the sampling equipment, hitching the sleds to snowmobiles and carefully traversing the sea ice on said snowmobiles, which, I discovered today, is extremely fun.
One of the research questions Andy and Craig are exploring in Barrow is how the amount of snow covering sea ice might affect the diverse species of algae living in and just below the ice. A thin snow cover allows more sunlight to reach the algae; a thicker snow cover creates a darker environment. As in any ecosystem, many different species are competing for light and nutrients. For this study, Andy and Craig want to see how changing one factor in the Arctic sea ice ecosystem – the amount of available light – might allow some organisms to grow better and become more prevalent than others.
Last week Andy and Craig set up an artificial snow gradient at our first field site, where different snow depths cover the ice in a small, isolated area. Ice cores were drilled here on their first day and Andy and Craig will repeat this same exercise later in May. Collecting data over these specific time intervals will enable them to see how snow depth and distribution affect the community of organisms living in the ice. This information will provide an idea of what might happen to the entire ecosystem if more light is introduced via less snow cover in the future.
At the second field site, scientists used an auger to drill a hole in the ice, which is currently about four feet thick. Then a camera was lowered into the hole, with a live feed to a computer so we could see what was happening in the sea directly below us. A thick layer of algae covered the underside of the sea ice and once lowered eight meters to the sea floor, the camera revealed isopods (small crustaceans), jellyfish and a few unrecognizable members of the Arctic marine ecosystem.
“We do the camera work because there’s no substitute for seeing the ecosystem intact. We need to get cores in order to collect samples, but you get a really different impression of the ecosystem with the camera,“ Andy explained.
Later in the afternoon we searched the ice for a sampling station Andy and Craig used last year, but were unable to find it. The area had become covered with huge pressure ridges, large fragments of ice that pile up when sheets of ice collide, which are hard to cross on a snowmobile. At one point fresh polar bear tracks meandered among the ridges, but we never caught sight of the bear who made them.